Assen in Northern Holland
is a home from home for British riders and fans. The locals
are friendly, polite and invariably speak better English
than the Brit visitors, the circuit is fast, flowing and
pretty and British riders always do well there. Well, almost
always anyway. The circuit itself has been emasculated in
the last couple of years, a large chunk being taken off for
use as a car park and fairground, so some of the character
has gone along with around a mile of track. But it's still
a great track with overtaking opportunities a-plenty and
a fabulous combination of fast sweepers, complexes, tight
stuff and everything. Everything apart from hills, that is.
This is Holland, after all, and that means a distinct lack
of gradients. Everywhere.
Last year, conditions were such that locals
were wondering if one of the famous local dykes had burst,
with the track flooded and torrential rain falling all weekend.
Lots of desperate action saw Chris Walker take the ZX-10
to its first and only win, while James Toseland tasted the
gravel before remounting and storming through the field for
valuable points. Assen is, after all, the home circuit for
the Ten Kate team, and it never does any harm to be seen
to try very hard in front of your boss and all his invited
This year, Toseland comes to Assen as firm
favourite, with a clear lead in the championship and a bike
that is working better than ever before. And certainly initial
qualifying looked very promising, with the young Englishman
clearly quickest on day one, ahead of Haga, Xaus, Bayliss
and Corser. Karl Muggeridge has something to prove on the
Alto Evolution Honda as well - last year he was here with
Ten Kate, but after a season dogged with bad luck the talented,
fast and immensely likeable Aussie found himself without
a ride. A strong result here, in front of his old team's
home crowd, would be sweet indeed. So sixth place after day
one of qualifying is good news for him. His team-mate, Josh
Brookes, was going well after day one, qualifying tenth,
ahead of such luminaries as Biaggi, and Kagayama. Oh, and instead of the normal sou'westers and umbrellas, the visiting throngs needed factor 30 and sunhats as temperatures soared under a cloudless sky.
Day two saw Toseland staying up at the top, though Troy Bayliss, possibly the hardest man in the paddock, and Troy Corser prevailed at the end of qualifying, Corser going just five thousandths of a second faster than the young Englishman. Xaus continued his good form to beat Lanzi on the official factory Ducati, while Haga struggled with setup and qualified some way down. But the real surprise was Max Biaggi, struggling way down in twelfth. But qualifying, of course, is all about getting a setup and just making sure you make the cut for Superpole. The actual times don't count for anything as long as you're in the top sixteen. And so the top sixteen lined up for Superpole. And the first real revelation was Max Biaggi, who set a truly spectacular time to fire him straight to the front row of the grid. Max, it seems, can deliver when it counts. But then that shouldn't be a surprise. Kagayama, too, did well though not quite in the stellar class of his illustrious team-mate, while Karl Muggeridge on the Alto Evolution Honda managed a very credible lunge up the grid. Lorenzo Lanzi, perhaps inspired by the stillbelow par fitness of his battered team-mate, rode an impressive lap to knock Biaggi off the top and take a seemingly unassailable lead. Nori Haga had a good try but ran off the track and, though he saved the bike - through several metres of knee pushing and sheer bloody mindedness - it put him way down in fifteenth. James Toseland had been, as we've already said, pretty quick all weekend. But nothing prepared us for his Superpolelap. The lap is broken into three sectors, oddly enough called one, two and three, and the times from each sector are taken as a reference.The end of sector three is the then of thelap. JT did well in sector one but wasn't faster than Lanzi. By the end of sector two, though, he was a full half a second faster, and by the end of the lap he was nearly two thirds of a second clear. Even Troy Bayliss was over half a second down on the young Englishman, whileCorser, Mr Superpole, found himself on the second row behind Xaus, with Kagayama and Neukirchner lined up next to him. Row three had Muggeridge heading Nieto, Rolfo and Smrz with Laconi, Brookes, Haga and Fabrizio finishing off the Superpole contenders.
So. No surprise that the balmy weather enjoyed for the last couple of days in Northern Europe carried on for race day. Temperatures were a little lower than for qualifying - no bad thing as it meant more grip and better tyre life - but it was still unseasonably warm. Which meant that nobody had any actual race data for the new circuit layout, the only visits they've paid here having been cold and damp. And that was going to make life potentially rather interesting.
Race One saw a blinding start from Toseland with Bayliss, Lanzi and Biaggi staying in the order they started. o high dramas as everyone completed lap one cleanly. The man of the lap was certainly Nori Haga, who climbed from fifteenth to seventh in the space of just one lap. Max Biaggi, on the other hand, dropped back at a similar rate, falling down to seventh by the end of lap two. Up at the front, Toseland was trying to break away but there were a couple of people who just weren't co-operating. Bayliss was no surprise, of course, but on lap five Haga charged through to take the lead rather unceremoniously. Then, on the very next lap, Ruben Xaus did the same thing, relegating the Brit to third. Xaus had higher things on his mind ad went one better a couple of laps later, taking the lead from Haga who also lost out to Toseland again, going back to third himself. Another couple of laps and it was Toseland back in the lead in emphatic style, making it stick and rapidly extending a small cushion over the following melee. Xaus, Haga and Bayliss then proceeded to slug it out for the next twelve laps, swapping places all the time though still traveling quickly enough to keep up with Toseland without being able to threaten his lead. And so it stayed to the end. Toseland took a comfortable two thirds of a second win from Haga, who had finally broke clear of the following mob a couple of laps earlier and himself had a three second lead over Xaus, with Bayliss another three and a bit seconds behind. Troy Corser, who had been going incredibly well and was reeling in Haga in third place after a climb back up through the field lost the front and crashed out on a fast right hander after his radiator let go and sprayed coolant all over his rear tyre. Both the Alto Evolution riders dropped out with technical problems, disappointing for the team who seemed to be going so well until then.
Race Two was a little warmer than before, closer to the conditions in qualifying in fact, which might have made a difference to some people. Biaggi, certainly, got off the line a lot better as he led the pack through the first part of the circuit before overcooking his approach to a corner and running wide, ending up sixth. So the end of the first lap saw Toseland leading Bayliss, Lanzi, Xaus and Haga with Biaggi just managing to stave off a very sore Troy Corser, black and blue after his earlier fast highside. Haga, again, was on a charge, rampaging through the field to get up onto the podium in just three laps. In fairness, one of those places was a gift as Xaus threw the Ducati into the gravel in his usual inimitable style. But passing Lanzi for third was all his own work, while prising Bayliss out of second was a work of art. And three laps later, both Haga and Bayliss passed Toseland in short order. One lap later, Toseland was back into second after am audacious ride around the outside of Bayliss' Ducati, and one lap after that was closing on Haga when the Japanese rider suffered some sort of electrical failure and retired. Which was a shame as he was going well and it looked as though we'd be deprived of a fantastic battle. Happily, though, that wasn't the case. Toseland only got to savour his lead for a single lap before it was rudely snatched away by Troy Bayliss in a simple draughting pass. Further back, Troy Corser, Lorenzo Lanzi and Max Biaggi were chasing the lead, and each other, hard while Yukio Kagayama suddenly dropped from a strong sixth to a distant thirteenth. Roby Rolfo remembered which end of a bike goes forward ad climbed steadily from his rather dire first lap thirteenth place to a relatively respectable seventh.
Up at the front, though, a battle royal had developed between Bayliss and Toseland, both riders being faster in some areas than others and both clearly having a huge respect for each other as they seemed to be totally unconcerned with just how close they were together - a measure of the reliance each had on the other not doing anything stupid. The lead swapped more times than I can remember, frequently through the same section, but it was always the same story. Toseland would gain fantastic drive and get the lead the Bayliss would be able to somehow turn that little bit tighter and then keep the advantage on the brakes to slip back in front. Crucially, it was always Bayliss who crossed the line first, though ever by more than a few hundredths of a second. Then, on the final lap, Toseland made his move a little harder and a little earlier, and it stuck. This time Bayliss couldn't get back inside and the young Englishman held the advantage through to the last chicane and the home straight.
A little back down the field, Lorenzo Lanzi finally succumbed to the immense pressure Corser was exerting and parked his Ducati in the gravel trap as well, happily completely unhurt. Karl Muggeridge climbed up to eighth in a spirited ride before the Alto Evolution machine again expired and forced him to retire. His team-mate, Josh Brookes, at least managed to keep going this time, though back down the field in fourteenth place, the last finisher. The race long scrap between Fabrizio and Neukirchner was decided in the Italia's favour, while Roby Rolfo was able to take advantage of his position, and a couple of retirements, to make hay and climb to a career best fifth place.
But who won? Well Toseland went into the last chicane just a little too hot and so had to really nail it out. Not a problem normally, but when you've got Troy Bayliss breathing down your neck you don't want to make any mistakes at all. The hard acceleration lifted the front wheel on Toseland's Honda, robbing him of a tiny bit of drive, and when he changed up a few yards from the finishing line the same thing happened. And Bayliss was there, ready to pounce. The end result separated the riders by just nine thousandths of a second. Try to get it on your watch - you'll struggle to be able to start and stop the stopwatch that fast. And it was decided in favour of Bayliss.
So race two was probably the most exciting bit of superbike racing we've seen this year. It's not done the championship any harm at all, keeping it open as it does, though Toseland has strengthened his hold on the top of the table while missing out on his first ever double.
Next we go to Monza - Ducati's home track - for one of the most exciting venues of the year. Lots of draughting, huge speeds, tight nadgery chicanes. It's going to be great...
1 James Toseland (Honda)
2 Noriuki Haga (Yamaha)
3 Ruben Xaus (Ducati)
4 Troy Bayliss (Ducati)
5 Lorenzo Lanzi (Ducati)
6 Max Biaggi (Suzuki)
7 Yukio Kagayama (Suzuki)
8 Fonsi Nieto (Kawasaki)
9 Roby Rolfo (Honda)
10 Max Neukirchner (Suzuki)
1 Troy Bayliss (Ducati)
2 James Toseland (Honda)
3 Max Biaggi (Suzuki)
4 Troy Corser (Yamaha)
5 Roby Rolfo (Honda)
6 Michel Fabrizio (Honda)
7 Max Neukirchner (Suzuki)
8 Fonsi Nieto(Kawasaki)
9 Jakub Smrz (Ducati)
10 Regis Laconi (Kawasaki)
after five rounds:
1 James Toseland 196
2 Max Biaggi 164
3 Nori Haga 144
5 Troy Corser 114
7Lorenzo Lanzi 98
8 Max Neukirchner 71
9 Roby Rolfo 64
10Fonsi Nieto 46